The Problem of Meaning in Literature

A brief introduction for my Year 1 students by Professor John Lye

Copyright 1996 by John Lye

"Meaning" is a difficult issue, and what I have to say here only scratches the surface of a complex and contested area. How do we know what a work of literature is 'supposed'; to mean, or what its 'real' meaning is? There are several ways to approach this:


The author

Does a work of literature mean what the author 'intended' it to mean, and if so, how can we tell? If all the evidence we have is the text itself, we can only speculate on what the priorities and ideas of the author were from our set of interpretive practices and values (how we read literature and how we see the world). We can expand this:

  1. by reading other works by the same author,
  2. by knowing more and more about what sort of meanings seem to be common to works in that particular tradition, time and genre,
  3. by knowing how the author and other writers and readers of that time read texts -- what their interpretive practices were (as reading and writing must be part of the same set of activities), and
  4. by knowing what the cultural values and symbols of the time were.

Any person or text can only 'mean' within a set of preexisting, socially supported ideas, symbols, images, ways of thinking and values. In a sense there is no such thing as a 'personal' meaning; although we have different experiences in our lives and different temperaments and interests, we will interpret the world according to social norms and cultural meanings -- there's no other way to do it.

We may have as evidence for meaning what the author said or wrote about the work, but this is not always reliable. Authorial intention is complicated not only by the fact that an author's ways of meaning and of using literary conventions are cultural, but by the facts that

  1. the author's work may very well have taken her in directions she did not originally foresee and have developed meanings which she did not intend and indeed may not recognize (our historical records are full of authors attesting to this),
  2. the works may embody cultural or symbolic meanings which are not fully clear to the author herself and may emerge only through historical or other cultural pespective, and
  3. persons may not be conscious of all of the motives that attend their work.

For an expanded consideration of meaning and the author, see my page The concept of the death of the author and the study of contemporary theory


The Text

Does the meaning exist 'in' the text? There is an argument that the formal properties of the text--the grammar, the language, the uses of image and so forth--contain and produce the meaning, so that any educated (competent) reader will inevitably come to essentially the same interpretation as any other. Of course, it becomes almost impossible to know whether the same interpretations are arrived at because the formal properties securely encode the meaning, or because all of the 'competent' readers were taught to read the formal properties of texts in roughly the same way. As a text is in a sense only ink-marks on a page, and as all meanings are culturally created and transferred, the argument that the meaning is 'in' the text is not a particularly persuasive one.

The meaning might be more likely to be in the conventions of meaning, the traditions, the cultural codes which have been handed down, so that insofar as we and other readers (and the author) might be said to agree on the meaning of the text, that agreement would be created by common traditions and conventions of usage, practice and interpretation. In different time periods, with different cultural perspectives (including class, gender, ethnicity, belief and world-view), or with different purposes for reading no matter what the distance in time or cultural situation, competent readers can arrive at different readings of texts. As on the one hand a text is an historical document, a material fact, and as on the other meaning is inevitably cultural and contextual, the question of whether the text 'really means' what it means to a particular reader, group or tradition can be a difficult and complex one.


The Reader

Does the meaning then exist in the reader's response, her processing or reception of the text? In a sense this is inescapable: meaning exists only insofar as it means to someone, and art is composed in order to evoke sets of responses in the reader (there is no other reason for it to exist, or for it to have patterns or aesthetic qualities, or for it to use symbols or have cultural codes). But this leads us to three essential issues.

  1. Meaning is 'social', that is, language and conventions work only as shared meaning, and our way of viewing the world can exist only as shared or sharable. When we read a text, we are participating in social, or cultural, meaning. Response is not merely an individual thing, but is part of culture and history.
  2. Meaning is contextual; change the context, you often change the meaning.
  3. Texts constructed as literature, or 'art', have their own codes and practices, and the more we know of them, the more we can 'decode' the text, that is, understand it - consequently, there is in regard to the question of meaning the matter of reader competency, as it is called, the experience and knowledge of decoding literary texts.

(I have a brief page on various Reader Response positions which you might like to look at.)

Your professor might insist on your having and practicing competency in reading by insisting that any interpretation you have (a) be rooted in (authorized by) the text itself and (b) be responsible to everything in the text -- that is, that your interpretation of any line or action be in the context of the whole of the work. But you may have to learn other competencies too. For instance in reading Mulk Raj Anand's The Untouchables you might have to learn what the social structure of India was like, what traditions of writing about and/or by Untouchables were in effect in India in the early 1930's, what political, cultural, and personal influences Mulk Raj Anand was guided by in constructing the imaginative world of this short novel; you might have to learn, in reading John Donne's poems, about, for instance, the 'platonic' (really, Florentine Neo-Plotinian) theory of love. As another kind of competency, you might have to practice reading certain kinds of literature, whose methods seem alien to you or particularly difficult for you, so that you can understand how that kind of literature works.

You may see that this idea that meaning requires competency in reading can bring us back, as meanings are cultural and as art is artifact, to different conventions and ways of reading and writing, and to the historically situated understandings of the section on the Author, above; at the least, 'meaning' requires a negotiation between cultural meanings across time, culture, gender, class. As readers you have in fact acquired a good deal of competency already; you are about to acquire more. The point of this brief essay is that 'meaning' is a phenomenon that is not easily ascribed or located, that it is historical, social, and derived from the traditions of reading and thinking and understanding the world that you are educated about and socialized in. Return to top


If you have any questions or suggestions please mail me.